My first two sections of Mythology class met yesterday, and my post on Stephen Hawking was still fresh in my mind. As predictable as clockwork, religious leaders have begun to respond the Hawking’s new book, not yet released. Theodicy in overdrive.
I am not qualified to assess Hawking’s scientific findings. As much as I daydream about having followed my childhood ambition to be a scientist, I find myself in religionist garb teaching university courses among the humanities. What is ironic is that theologians feel that they have to answer Hawking’s conclusions. An article on CNN has the rebuffs of a number of British clerics, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. The main thrust of their comments is that the God Hawking dismisses had already left the theological classroom (the God-of-the-gaps) while the God the major monotheistic religions serve is less of an explanation of the universe and more of a method of determining what it means. So, I guess, this God of meaning may or may not have created the universe, but let God be God and mathematics and physics be damned.
Unless the theologians are better trained than most, the intricacies of M-theory are far too complex to be understood by workaday religious practitioners. The theory is backed by mathematical formulas that are far more frightening than Tiamat, Ahriman, and Azazel bunched up in a cosmic tag-team match against the nice world theologians have created. For my part, I am happy to let the physicists deal with the numbers and symbol systems while I sit by trying to explain what mythology really is to my undergraduate audiences.
Every great once-in-a-while I regret no longer being in a position to conduct active research and publication. In the days when a full-time teaching position afforded me that option one of my favorite subjects was the exposure of facile arguments made by otherwise careful scholars. Most of those arguments focused on the presence of Asherah as a fully formed goddess in ancient Israel. Extremely tenuous evidence for the association of the goddess with a variety of ambiguous artifacts has polluted the discussion for decades now. Any vaguely abstract image suggesting a female was declared an “Asherah” representation, sometimes even images as simple as a triangle or a mother cow.
A colleague of mine just pointed out the recent article by Garth Gilmour in Palestine Exploration Quarterly 141 (2009), entitled “An Iron Age II Pictorial Inscription from Jerusalem Illustrating Yahweh and Asherah.” Having more than a passing acquaintance with the goddess, I read his article with considerable interest. A potsherd discovered in the 1920s, but unpublished until now, bears an incised “inscription” of two figures that Gilmour plausibly argues to be highly stylized female (left) and male (right). Basing his analysis of possible identities for this Picassoesque pair on the now canonical interpretation of the Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions, he suggests this is none other than the happy couple of Yahweh and Asherah.
Loving spouses or battling foes?
I encourage creativity in scholarship; otherwise it has a way of becoming deadly dull. The supposed pairing of Yahweh and Asherah, however, has been excessively overblown by scholars who should know better. When it comes to the point that escapees from Flatland who bear the suggestion of gender must be Israel’s most famous bachelor and his main squeeze, I have to wonder what the basis of solid scholarship is. There are no words obliquely hinting that this is a divine couple, nor is there a sacred context to suggest this shard was in any way religious. Given the fact that the image had formerly been on a spouted jar, perhaps holding water, would not a suggestion of Marduk and Tiamat be more appropriate?
Rorschach tests aside, this incised image is an important piece of a puzzle with far too many pieces missing – the puzzle of the artistic life of ancient Israelites. Given the all-too-human interest in relationships between women and men, I would see no necessity of making deities out of a pair of prospective lovers or foes. Why can’t people just be people?
The Dagon of the Hebrew Bible is a fishy character. As I mentioned in my podcast on the subject (Puff the Magic Dagon), the biblical writers seem to have considered him a sort of merman (i.e., ugly mermaid), and since nobody really had an idea what lived in the depths of the ocean in those days that was a fairly safe bet. As we continue the deep-water exploration of our very wet planet, we constantly come across fantastic creatures. Keep an eye out for Jonah’s great fish, and we can explore this watery conundrum.
Water is the most divine natural substance. Life evolved in water and cannot exist without it. Ancient peoples were so fascinated by it that it was supposed to be the primordial element. In the beginning there was water. Genesis 1 does not narrate the creation of water; it is already present at the beginning. Water was perceived as chaotic, indeed, monstrous even. Some have suggested that the fierce waves breaking on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean spawned tales of water’s relentless battle against the land.
Tiamat, eh, ur, Yamm? Or is it Poseidon?
Whatever the reasons may have been, the ancient sea was divinized. The Sumerians may have perceived a deity named Kur as the god of the deeps, a role held more famously by Tiamat in the Enuma Elish. Enki and Apsu were also Mesopotamian deities with aqueous associations. When the Ugaritic myths were stylused, Yamm was a sea monster while Asherah was nick-named Lady Asherah of the Sea.
She's also a yellow submarine
In all of this we find no Dagon in the water. When we add Rahab, Leviathan, and Poseidon into the mix maybe it is better that way; it would be a pity should there be more gods than fish in the seas.